Be the Cowboy is suffused with romantic anxiety.
Mitski’s mercurial music, with its generous helpings of dour bedroom pop, aggro-punk and whatever else catches her fancy, never seems to lose the ability to surprise. After Puberty 2 saw her blossom into one of the indie scene’s brightest talents, the singer-songwriter pares back that album’s ambitious sweep with the compact Be the Cowboy, a half-hour record that condenses her firm grasp of youthful angst, longing and spite into bite-sized nuggets that could have soundtracked a bitter alternate universe of classic AM radio. Even factoring in the two-minute lengths of most of the tracks, Mitski finds ways to duck and weave around expectations with a varied set of genre-hopping music.
The artist announces her puckish unpredictability with an opening blurt of organ noise not unlike the jolting fortissimo of the Surprise Symphony. “Geyser” paradoxically matches that alienating grind with lyrics of invitation and pleading, as much to a muse as a lover. The track settles from its opening burst to a cooler drone, only to swell at the end with early-2000s symphonic metal pomp. Mitski runs through this baffling array of sounds in just under 150 seconds, and this is one of the album’s longer tracks. Elsewhere, as on “Washing Machine Heart,” she pulls out rubbery synths to bounce merrily under wisps of surf guitar and swooning fake strings, or she does modern country on the twanging but atmospheric “Lonesome Love.”
By this stage, Mitski has established herself not merely as a sharp lyricist but a keen pop arranger, and she loads the album with sonic earworms. “Remember My Name” is pure robo-funk staccato, while “Pink in the Night” balances her direct, plaintive vocals with swells of curling guitar licks and synths to put some rhythm into an otherwise slow, aching ballad. The artist pulls out all the stops for “Nobody,” a disco revival triumph that mitigates lyrics of loneliness with chicken scratch guitar, four-on-the-floor piano and a breakdown that launches space-bound synth lines and rigorously syncopated percussion. The balance of longing and uninhibited self-expression embraces contradictions, propelling the track the sheer giddiness that it exists.
Of course, Mitski’s lyrics remain as incisive as ever, and here she applies her skills to rediscovering herself after the self-denial of extensive touring. Her lyrical voice remains as strong as ever, but there’s a fleeting sense of self-doubt in some of the moods she expresses on the album. “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?,” for example, opens with her lamenting a relationship she broke off perhaps too soon, asking “I know that I ended it but why won’t you chase after me?” That simultaneously sardonic and sincerely regretful tone recurs throughout the album, as on “Old Friend,” where she ruminates on the friendships that fade with time and distance even as both parties retain each other’s intimate secrets. “Lonesome Love” takes Mitski’s mournful wit to new heights, summarizing her defiance within her longing with the line “Nobody butters me up like you/ And nobody fucks me like me.” Romance here is bad, not of the passionate, incendiary variety but of the perfunctory, post-dating app variety in which people couple up in nebulous relationships that only seem to have any resonance after they’ve ended.
Be the Cowboy is suffused with that romantic anxiety, in which the expectations to not really need anyone collide with the inherent desire for companionship. The frequently aggressive, even danceable arrangements of the tracks can only slightly mask the ache that runs through the album. Even Mitski’s songs about imagined long-term bonds, like “Me and My Husband,” are undercut by a sense of ephemerality that stresses the ultimate transience of all relationships. This comes to a head on closer “Two Slow Dancers,” in which a couple is left feeling like the last of their peers to be together, but instead of taking comfort in the strength of their relationship they are instead nervous about the possibility that they waited too long to go their separate ways. “It would be 100 times easier if we were young again,” she sings, but with the distinct sense that to do it all over again would merely repeat a cycle of regrets and second guesses.